So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

29 May, 2007

Navigating the Labyrinth: Left-Hand Rule

Over on Little Light's place in the discussion of intersectionality issues, magniloquence said in response to me:

"I think, along with the privilege, there's ... hrm, assumption of purity there? Like the yelliest feminists - the ones that put oppression as a woman before everything else, and who are most likely to cast everything in terms of their feminist viewpoint - tend to be the upper/middle class, relatively well-educated white ones. Not just because they're privileged and think they should dominate (though yes, that's huge ... and annoying), but also because for them, that's all that's happening. That's the only thing 'holding [them] back.' There's no intersection to be had there."

As I have mentioned now and again, I have, historically, serious issues with the values of the upper-middle class relatively well-educated white feminism I was exposed to when young -- largely because, well, it doesn't like my kind. Though I fit its nominal demographic.

And I'm now wondering if that's because sexism was never the primary issue holding me back in my life.

My primary issue? Education access. Trying to get a good education was the dominant issue of my childhood -- and I had parents who were doing the best they could for me, bringing that upper-middle-class privilege to bear on the school system, fighting for access to programs that could address my needs, able to pay for things outside the school's limitations. And I was fighting there as the precocious intellectual brat, which is a privileged position of a kind, but I still have this gut-kick reaction that damnit, if the education system worked better, if there were adequate funding, if there were more options available, if some of the craziness were removed, if people had the skillsets to do various things, that would Save Teh Wurld Tee-Em.

The horrible, horrible sexual harassment that made my junior high school days a living hell? Is subsidiary to the education access issue in my head -- because that was tied up in matters of school choice and familiarity, wound up dictating what schools I was willing to go to come high school (and I recognise that I had the privilege of an option to choose to escape the abuse, which is not something that other people, especially people with certain other intersections, have available) -- because I was a target because I was an asocial nerd, and thus I was rendered perpetually, constantly aware that my sexuality was being treated as a public chew toy because of being The Smart Girl, and nothing we could do could render my schooling free of that. It dominated my choice to do after-school activities (so I didn't have to take the bus home with the mangy hounds), it plagued me during the school day, and sexism only superceded the way that it ruined my access to education when I was told that nobody would do a damn thing about it because "boys will be boys". (That was my first exposure to institutional sexism.)

Secondary issue and first intersection? Mental health. Not just my own depression issues or my probably-PTSD, though that's a big chunk of it. But stuff like my cousin, whose intersections between learning disability/ADHD/race meant that he dropped out of high school and never went back (and look, there's the education access again, funny that). Not just my experiences with a parent who is probably mentally ill with more than depression, with the generational effects of alcoholism, with all that stuff. But things like -- I went to one of the Seven Sisters schools, right? Bastions of professional-class white feminism. One of the folks in my social group had been hospitalised because she was suicidal, and others of my friends tried to organise a trip to visit her there. And were told, more or less, "Don't you worry about the likes of her, she's shown that she's not good enough to be one of us. Go worry about your homework."

I wasn't terribly surprised that when my own mental illness issues led to me dropping out, I was bullied and browbeaten by the administration, and then abandoned by officialdom. (And look, there's education access again. Fancy.) At least I wasn't suicidal, eh?

After that it starts getting to be a complicated, tangled mass. Religious issues have mostly been my increasing sensitivity to language of religion that presumes beliefs that are not mine, such as some sort of monotheism (which I see both from majority-culture theism and the atheistic reaction to same). Sexuality issues have been largely an ongoing, underlying thread of anxiousness about my kink, partially induced by anti-BDSM feminism. I have ongoing concerns about the safety and security of my nontraditionally-structured family, which have been a major focus of activism for me for ten years now, because I want to get the world to be as safe as possible for my children before I have them rather than have to fear once they exist; that starts to blend into some other civil liberties stuff in a complicated way that I don't know qualifies under any adjective-related issues. I started developing body-image issues somewhere in my late teens or early twenties that I mostly don't talk about (they're currently under control, in any case).

I pass well enough as cisgendered under most circumstances that it doesn't much come up as an issue; I suspect that this has shielded me from a lot of issues over time, as it strongly shapes my experience of sex polarisation. My physical capability issues are both sporadic and comparatively minor. Race issues and queer issues and trans issues mostly come up because of supporting others, and I try to be aware of them though I suspect that I often don't do as well as I might.

If I had to boil the tangled mass down into a single thing it would be a constant, snarling wrestling match with categorisation -- the whole monstering problem, being the other in an inescapable around the edges way. There's this whole intricate morass of images that people get measured against, whole bunches of default-human assumptions, and they all rankle at some level. ( I used to measure myself against the standards of that white upper-middle-class educated feminism, and when I did I would break down in tears and feel like a worthless piece of shit.) But all the cardboard people rankle -- the this-or-thatness, or the assumptions of limitations, or the institutional biases against those people who don't happen to fit the cutouts the institutions favor. Freedom isn't fitting into the shape the institutions favor -- and some of us will still be unable to fit that shape, for whatever reason. Some of us will remain in the maze.

To not get lost in the labyrinth, keep one hand on the wall. Turn the same way at every intersection.

Here be monsters.


Keshwyn said...

Jikharra is picking something to measure yourself against and then surpassing that measurement. When the measurement and the target are both foisted upon you by society, then where is jikharra?

T'skrangish culture, alien though it might be, came out of a human head somewhere. While we can't pick what culture we want to live in, and we can't pack up and move to Barsaive, there is the occasional creeping subversive movement that makes its way into popular life at a time. Pick your poison, or pick your culture. I know a T'skrang lives in your head somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I like where a lot of this is going.

It's about time for me to leave work, so I won't be able to write much right now... but I do like it.

Education access is a big thing for me too. I tend to think that at the really big levels, race, gender, and class (and to a somewhat lesser extent, things like sexuality and religion) are the things to look at. Hrm, that's not exactly right... I think when you're looking at survey data, or talking about trends, or working from a concept to reality, those are the major analytical categories to work with.

But when you want to figure out how people get from place a to place b, or why things work the way they do, stuff like education and (mental) health care and geographic isolation.. access issues, those are the big ones. And those are all so very amazingly intersectional it's a wonder anyone ever saw them differently.

Hmm. In that way, I think that seeing most things through the lens of education access or mental health is really different than seeing through the lens of gender oppression. Because at the level it's usually used, gender oppression (or racial oppression, or class oppression) is a really narrow thing. But, as your cousin demonstrates... access issues can't be narrowed like that.

(It's also important to note that most of the Big Problems have had some serious movements over the years limiting their overt expression. While overt sexism and racism etc. aren't at all hard to find, they are at least publically frowned upon at the level of Bad Acts and legislation. It's hard to get people to admit that there's even a systemic element to education access, or that this is a problem. That's just The Way Things Are.)

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I tend to category-slip like that a lot (see also the name of the blog) -- landing on places where there are all the bloody overlaps and saying, "Look, it's not that simple." Access issues is probably a reasonable way of describing my default framing on things. (It's like -- the part of theology I tend to gravitate towards is systematics, described by an actual degreed theologian as that bit where you pull on one thing and see what else wiggles.)

I don't think that dealing with the analytical categories as a primary thing for action actually helps with the intersections at all. It's -- this is paraphrasing The Lenses of Gender, which I just read, and is also one of my big bugaboos -- something that gets more access for people who are situated in comparable situations. It doesn't fix the non-comparable situations, it doesn't address the intersections, the people who can't or won't achieve comparable situations for whatever reasons.

I wind up frustrated mostly by systemic stuff. And I've tried to talk about systems six or eight times and I can't get the examples to come out right. Bah.

Magniloquence said...

Ha! I've been working on like, four posts on exactly that. The systems and precision and getting it all to come out right. I just can't ever seem to finish it.

I think Aunt B actually has a pretty good way of bypassing some of the silliness. She has a thing about pleasure... which (I wish I could find the post that I'm really talking about...) sort of boils down to just what you said. It's silly (and counterproductive) to act like we know exactly what's right... because what's right for some people and some intersections is going to be all wrong for others.

The example that always comes up for me is being a SAHM. It's a trap, right now, in a lot of ways. But some women really are happy doing it. And for some women (especially really poor women), it's a nearly inconcievable luxury. The goal of the 'movement' shouldn't be to make it so that no one is a SAHM, it should be to make it so that no one has to be a SAHM if they don't want to.

And that's what a lot of the single-lens stuff winds up being. "Oh, women are oppressed by having to stay home and take care of the kids. So we should work toward abortion rights and pay equality and daycare subsidies, so all women can work outside the home." Which ignites Mommy Wars iteration 1,245,560, since not everyone wants to work outside the home, not everyone would be able to pay for those options anyway, and a lot of people dislike the idea of being told that the key to their freedom is to not have kids.

...which then causes me to roll my eyes and point out for the 1,245,561st time that it's not the (individual) choice that's the problem, it's the system. The problem wasn't your cousin's behavior, or his race, or even his mental health issues... it was that the system he's in wasn't equipped to deal with that intersection of things. The problem isn't being a SAHM, it's the fact that a lot of women wind up having to do it (or feeling like they have to do it), and hate it, or want to do it and find out that it's a trap. The problem isn't (just) abortion or childbearing, it's that we live in a really messed up system that oppresses you no matter which reproductive choices you make.

This point appears to completely pass most people by. And you're right... focusing on the big analytical stuff doesn't usually help with the intersections. Not, I think, because they're useless ... but because people aren't willing or able to sit there and frame things on different levels. If you've got a race framework going and I complicate it with gender, then either you have to make a bigger matrix or you have to insist that one takes priority over the other. It rarely seems to occur to anyone that different oppressions might operate in different ways, and that intersectionality is more complicated than addition; being oppressed as a woman and oppressed as a person of color and oppressed as a queer person and oppressed by mental health status .... they all work differently, and have different, stacking problems. But they don't just stack, they change... which is the whole WoC repro-rights argument in a nutshell. It's not just abortion with a side of 'hey don't sterilize us if we don't want it' thrown in, it's 'we need to be able to make choices about our reproductive futures as full human beings, even if those choices differ.'

*laughs* Sorry if that sounds ranty. It's on my mind a lot.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

One of the reasons that I have Serious Issues with white professional-class feminism is that I am inclined to being a SAHP, and thus wound up with a whole bunch of baggage about how that meant I was a Brainwashed Pawn Of The Patriarchy And Throwback To The Fifties because I was supposed to be out there doing professional-class work rather than being such an ungrateful child and a Traitor To Feminism Who Betrays Everything We've Worked For.

It gets tiresome. And while I'm better off in the mental health department than I was when I quit the office job that was making me crazy (I pretty much mortgaged my ability to do the work I'm called to in order to pay the rent), I can't shake the knowledge that I spent a couple months after I quit it occasionally breaking down on my partner and sobbing about how wasn't I a Bad Woman for letting him support me.

And then I go off on an angle -- because one of the problems I see is that nobody gets to integrate job-and-family well, pretty much. I know a woman whose husband keeps getting called in for mandatory overtime on some crisis or other when he was going to spend time with their kids, or take them to the doctor, or something, and if he says, "Look, I need some time with my family", he risks his job. Because 'has a professional-class job' is systemically equated with 'has a wife at home to take care of the kids' -- and that assumption doesn't change for women in the office, it's back to the "if you're willing to situate yourself in this broken system, you can get the same sort of job as a man would in the broken system". And that doesn't even begin to touch people who have to work two jobs to pay the rent in the first place, or any of that other stuff -- it's a privileged problem to have. This all ... I don't know where to stand, and I don't know what lever to use, and the problem really is "moving the world".

Dw3t-Hthr said...

And now I've chased back links through the Pleasure post ... yeah. Eudaimonia is a fine, fine word.

A fellow I know managed to convince me a few years ago that processing the world in terms of "rights" doesn't get what I wanted it -- too much in the absolutes, no mechanism for working out how "rights" conflict, and it doesn't deal with, well, yeah, I have a right to whatever, but the system is set up in such a way that I don't have the ability to take the option.

He frames things in terms of access to choice, and for the most part, so do I -- and that comes down to things like, yeah, I can do a variety of things I want to because I have the option to choose those things, whether because of wealth-privilege or education background or whatever else. And I'm willing to work to make other choices fall within my realm of the possible. And I think that other people should have that level of access.

I mean. The generic version of the birth control medication I take severely aggravates my depression (to the point that I was on it for something like two years before I managed to put two and two together, because my mind wasn't working, and I couldn't remember what it was like to be out of that haze), so I pay out-of-pocket for the non-generic. And I have the options of choosing doctors who will deal with the formulations of my pills and find one that works for me (as that's not the first formulation I was on either), have the knowledge base to process out the side effects, have the ability to choose to pay for the corporate rather than having to stick with what my insurance will cover, all of these choices that aren't necessarily covered with basic access to health care that includes reproductive issues, and ought to be.

Yeah. Babbling and ranty, me.

Magniloquence said...

*laughs* You and I seem to think a lot alike.

I haven't a clue what lever to use either... but the world is in dire need of moving. I'm somewhat of the mindset that we need many little levers. Work should be different. Childcare should be different. How we care for people who can't care for themselves should be different. Social systems should work differently. And so on and so forth.

I'm also inclined toward staying at home, to some extent. I've always thought it would be nice, anyway. I know there are a lot of things I'd like to do, though (none of which are what I'm doing right now, unfortunately) ... what I, personally, would like to see is the ability to move freely from one to another. Work somewhere, have kids, stay home with them, work part time, work flextime, return to the workforce, or some combination.

Have you read Joan Williams' UnBending Gender? I love that book. And her suggestions on these fronts are really nice. They won't solve everything, of course... but they're a good start. Just getting comfortable with the idea of flexibility, and absolute productivity instead of seat-time.

If I can do my job (okay, someone else's job, as I'm an assistant and my job is just to be here in case someone needs something... which always sends me off on tangents and rants) in a few hours, then I should be able to do that and get moving to something else, instead of trying to fit into an arbitrary timeframe just because people count work by hours spent.

Alternately (or better yet, concurrently), I'd love to see a ... re-valuation of stuff. Care work should be more highly valued, period. We should pay our teachers well, and give them the resources they need to teach our kids. Ditto daycare. Ditto nursing. And yes, I think service work should be included in that too; we're at a level of technology where we're already facing structural unemployment in a lot of traditional jobs (and outsourcing the rest of it)... why can't we pay the people who provide the services we use instead? Why can't we have more buses and cleaner floors and more teachers and more clinics? Instead of bunches of people without jobs, or being offered jobs so dangerous and so undervalued they'd be stupid to even try.

... I don't know how to get there, though. Except maybe through education and subversion. Get enough people through Teach For America and Americorps... and teach those kids how to look at the world a little different, and hope you can nudge the door open widely enough for them to burst through and fix things.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Mobility comes back around to choice, the ability to make certain choices -- I'm all in favor of mobility.

I'm finally going to be in a position to start the small business I want to do, am working on building up a resume for freelance distance copyediting, am polishing up my second novel for submission (the first needs an overhaul, and I haven't heard back from the publisher who has it) and stuck on the third, much of which is sort of sidelined for my domestic obligations -- so I flow around in all of this stuff that doesn't get me credit as someone who has a Real Job, to which I will be adding childcare in the foreseeable future.

And I'll have homegrown corn come harvesttime.

Chasing eudaimonia.

Re: UnBending Gender: *sorts through the heaps of unshelved gender-related books* No, that's not one I have -- I'll put it on my list.

I have heaps of ranting about the devaluing of care work -- the impression I have is that someone who doesn't want to be top dog, or who is willing to do support work, is basically considered to be a lesser human being than someone who wants the spotlight. I see this everywhere -- in places ranging from the discussions of BDSM through to supposedly 'egalitarian' communities that reject heirarchy on the assumption that everyone wants to be on top.

I don't know how to fix it either. It's sort of the Fisher King in my head, and I'm a damn fool who doesn't know how to ask the right question.